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Cabrera Pushing GMU Into Digital Era

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credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

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FAIRFAX, Va. — The new president of George Mason University tools around Northern Virginia in a red four-door Chevrolet Volt, introducing himself to faculty, students and staff in a school spread across three campuses in as many counties.

But Angel Cabrera’s favorite vehicle to meet what is known as the Mason Nation is Twitter. And the future he envisions for Virginia’s largest public university is built not just on bricks and mortar but also in a digital realm with seemingly limitless capacity to expand.

The university Cabrera has led since July counts 31,000 students in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties and another 2,000 elsewhere.

Within a few days, though, GMU economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok will launch a free online course that aims to reach tens of thousands more from around the globe. These far-flung students won’t be enrolled at George Mason. But they will be learning from two of its prominent scholars, part of a movement to open up elite academics to the masses.

“That’s an amazing Mason experiment that can help us find a way forward,” Cabrera said. He added: “We can find ways of using technology, hopefully, that allow us to reach more people, touch more lives.”

Cabrera, 45, a Spanish-born educator just five years older than the university itself, became George Mason’s sixth president at a time of enormous flux for higher education and especially for major public universities. He came to GMU after leading the highly regarded Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona for nearly eight years.

Cabrera’s predecessor as GMU president, Alan G. Merten, held the position for 16 years, overseeing a building boom and climb in prestige that paralleled the economic ascent of Northern Virginia. U.S. News & World Report now rates George Mason a top “up-and-coming” school.

Just before Cabrera took office, the University of Virginia was shaken by a leadership crisis that reverberated at George Mason and public universities around the nation. The abrupt ouster of U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan by the school’s governing board leaders, a subsequent revolt in Charlottesville and then the reinstatement of Sullivan all reflected tensions over the mission of public higher education in an era of dwindling state support.

George Mason, a spinoff of U-Va. that became independent in 1972, is known for embracing innovation and is much younger than the flagship school Thomas Jefferson founded. Still, GMU is by no means immune to that debate.

“The way I look at it, Virginia has given us 16 prominent citizens that represent the voices of Virginians, and that’s our Board of Visitors,” Cabrera said. “We better listen to them. That’s one lesson.”

On the other hand, he said: “Boards need to understand that decisions made in universities are not made like they’re made in the corporate world. We’re different animals. So I think both sides need to learn from this.”

The new president, who earns a base annual salary of $531,400, lives with his wife, Beth, and their two teenage children in the university’s Mathy House.

Cabrera faces plenty of challenges. He wants to bulk up what he calls George Mason’s “very, very small” endowment, which now stands at $53 million. He frets about the decline of state funding for the university and rise of in-state tuition and fees, which total $9,620 a year, up 24 percent in five years after adjusting for inflation. He also must answer questions that surface every fall about why the university doesn’t have a Division 1 football team. “It’s a very expensive proposition,” he said. But he touts the basketball program that made a famous run to the NCAA Final Four in 2006.

Cabrera has taken a twofold approach to his debut. He appears to be as open and accessible — via his Twitter handle(at)CabreraAngel and in person — as any university president anywhere. At the same time, he has been wary of pronouncing policies, preferring to solicit faculty and staff views on a new blueprint for GMU.

“He did not come in and start bossing people around and putting his imprint on where he wanted the university to go,” said GMU Rector C. Daniel Clemente, head of the governing Board of Visitors. “He has spent the first three months talking to all the stakeholders and listening. He takes notes.”

One late September morning, Cabrera met with the Faculty Senate on the Fairfax campus. He wrote in a small blue notebook as professors rose one by one to air concerns:

A shortage of classroom and office space. A lack of racial and ethnic diversity among faculty. A fear about what might be lost in the push toward “blended” instruction, with courses taught partly online.

“I teach painting,” said one. “That one-to-one contact is essential.”

Cabrera voiced sympathy. But he said that in many cases it makes sense for students to be able to watch lectures at a time and place of their choosing. That shift, he told the professors, could free up time to focus on what he called “really precious moments” with students.

This year, major public and private universities from coast to coast have plunged into open-access digital education. The movement toward what are known as massive online open courses, or MOOCs, is heralded as a game-changer for higher education but raises questions about what universities will gain by giving away their product and how students will benefit if they can’t earn academic credit.

Under Cabrera, the school seems likely to spawn many MOOCs.

Among students, Cabrera is known for handing out GMU-green lollipops on dormitory move-in day and for handing over the official Twitter account (at)GeorgeMasonU to the university community.

Cabrera, who has more than 5,600 Twitter followers, has been a prolific tweeter since 2010, a passion he said probably drives his PR team crazy.

On Aug. 12, he tweeted from the Olympics Closing Ceremonies in London: “They even brought Lennon back .?.?. Wow” and “This is the middle ager’s psychedelic nirvana .?.?.” and “Please please don’t let the spice girls ruin this!!”

Sept. 4: “I swear it is possible to be exhausted and energized at the same time!”

Sept. 8, from Asia: “Worried about a prosperous, globally engaged, WTO member, increasingly open China? Consider the alternative”

The tweets, Cabrera said, allow him to give the GMU community an up-close look at its new leader. “People might wonder who is this guy, and why should we pay attention to this guy? One of the best ways to show people who I am is just tweeting the absurd circumstances of life.”

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